Sunday, November 29, 2020

Device Enable

Computers have done a lot of good in the world, and a lot of evil.  But it is the people using the computers that determine how they are used.

About 40 years ago, I worked for a large air conditioning company, and we were in the infant stages of installing microprocessor controllers in big industrial chillers.   These were machines that were the size of a one-car garage, and cost tens of thousands of dollars.  So spending $1000 or so on a controller made sense at the time.  Bear in mind, this was an era where a basic PC with a 20MB hard drive and a 640-x480 VGA screen was $3000 - without a mouse, or "windows" whatever that was.  It was a pretty big deal.

Anyway, we had a number of optional features on this machine, including energy-saver modes and whatnot, and if the customer wanted these, they had to pay extra for them.   The deal was, all the hardware was already present on the machine, and if the customer wanted the feature, we would simply reprogram the controller (an Intel 8032 as I recall) to enable that feature.   At the time, I felt there was something wrong about this.  After all, the customer had already paid for the hardware and owned the machine outright.  Shouldn't they be allowed to operate all of its features?

But again, we weren't selling a pile of parts and piping, but in a way, a certain number of tons of cooling capacity, and how much you paid determined how much you got - and what features you got as well.  It is like the outboard engine business, as I noted before.   Johnson (OMC) made a V-4 outboard in 85, 100, and 115 HP models.  They were identical from the outside, and internally, only a few parts were different.  The 85 HP model was basically a detuned version of the 115 model - with different carburation, connecting rods, pistons, etc, but basically the same block and lower unit.  They cost the same to manufacture as the higher horsepower models, but the higher output models sold for more.  They were selling horsepower, not a pile of engine parts.

But this idea has its problems, as Boeing recently discovered.  Angle of Attack (AoA) sensors are well known in the aviation industry.    The IKON aircraft, for example, puts an AoA indicator front-and-center in the cockpit.  The idea is, it will warn the pilot of a possible stall.   Most airliners use multiple sensors - for example pitot tubes (which I am quite familiar with, having used them in the air handling lab - primitive devices!).   The righthand side of the cockpit uses one pitot tube, and the lefthand side another. And if they disagree with one another, well, a warning is sounded.  Ice can clog these, or even a piece of tape left on from washing - or wasps building nests in the orifices.   The results can be catastrophic.

Boeing put two AoA sensors in the 737 MAX jet, and installed a warning device so that the pilots would be warned if the sensors disagreed with one another (indicating a sensor failure).   But this warning feature was software enabled - for an extra fee - and third-world airlines wanted the cheapest price possible and didn't pay extra for the warning.   The results should have been predictable.  When the sensor went nuts, the "MCAS" system wrenched control of the aircraft from the pilots, who were mystified as to what was going on (no warning and no training) and people died.   If they had received the warning on their screens and knew how to react to it, they might have shut off the MCAS system and avoided a crash.   But the warning feature was optional.  A safety warning was optional.

Like I said, computers can be used for good or evil, and to make a few extra bucks, someone - likely in the marketing department - went evil.   But this sort of thing still goes on today.  BMW made headlines recently by proposing a system whereby if you want to use certain features in your car - even heated seats - you have to pay a subscription fee.   To a lot of people, this sounds ridiculous, because it is.  And it could backfire on BMW in a big way, as people would get "subscription fatigue" from having to pay all these fees to operate a piece of equipment they already own.

There is good news, though.  If you don't want to pay to use your heated seats, you can still use them, but you have to listen to a loud, 15-second advertisement played through the car's sound system, first.  Just kidding.  But it does raise a lot of interesting questions.   Could the heated seats also be sold on a "per use" basis?  "Don't touch that button!  It will cost me six dollars!" - you can see how this plays out.

Sounds silly, but we saw this in the past with phones.  Back in the day, they had 1-900 phone numbers where you would be charged a buck or two to make a phone call.  Ads on Saturaday morning would target children, telling them to call a 1-900 number to "talk to their favorite cartoon character!" and parents would be shocked to see their phone bill well over $100 at the end of the month - back when a phone bill was less than $30.

Lisa Simpson with her first bill for her "myPod"

Apple must have been paying attention, because when the iPod came out, many people were surprised to get bills in the hundreds of dollars when they started downloading songs onto it.  The smart phone posed similar problems, particularly for apps (and in particular garbage apps) that charged small sums of money.  If your account was enabled to allow such charges to your phone bill (mine is not, thank you), a child could end up adding hundreds of dollars to your bill every month - even more with "in game app purchases" or micro-transactions with "freemium" games.

Computers can be used for good or evil - it is the humans programming them, and the end users using them, that determine how.

Sadly, this seems to be a trend as of late, and this "right to repair" movement is a reaction to this.  So much of what we own today is "no user serviceable parts inside" and I have joked that in the near future, your car will come with the hood bolted shut and can only be opened by dealer technicians with special tools.   Al Goldstein, the late publisher of Screw magazine, claimed that his Rolls Royce silver Shadow was made this way - that the hood could only be opened with a special tool.  But it appears to be an urban legend.  Funny guy - he lived down the street from us near Pompano, Florida, and had a house on the ICW with a giant sculpture of a hand giving the bird to passing boaters.

As I noted before, printers have gone this route - requiring cartridges with special chips on them whose only purpose is to contained copyrighted code which cannot be copied without violating copyright law.  The printer is given away for free or at a very low price.  You end up spending more on cartridges in the first few months of use - and the cost-per-page skyrockets.   Of course, this just accelerated the trend away from printing - they killed off their own business.

I was at the Lowes the other day and they had a row of John Deere lawn tractors, advertising "cartridge oil changes"  - you bought a combined oil filter and engine oil cartridge from the dealer (or Lowes) and screwed it in place - no muss, no fuss, no spilled oil.  It meant you always put in the right amount of oil, too.  But it also meant that you had to buy a John Deere branded cartridge from a single source, who could change prices at a moment's notice.   How you could add oil to this tractor, I do not know.  Once it gets old and starts burning oil, that becomes an issue.

I recently got a letter from Ford Motor Company telling me that my navigation software was outdated but that for a low, low price of $149 they would update it for me.  Ouch.   Bear in mind you can buy a brand-new Garmin dashboard GPS for that amount - with lifetime updates for free.   Of course, today, people are using their phones for GPS directions, which we do on occasion.   It is funny, but despite all this talk about lack of infrastructure investment, there are a lot of new roads out there in America, even since 2016.  It is funny to see the GPS showing us flying over cornfields, as we navigate a new highway. Route 301 through Florida has been upgraded - no longer do you have to drive through Starke and its speed traps.

All that being said, it gives me a bad feeling about the Ford.  It is a truck we will have for another 50,000 miles or so and then sell.  Technology like this, when it gets old, gets expensive.  Already the main screen died on me twice.  I pulled the fuses for it and let it sit for a few minutes and it rebooted itself.  Bear in mind the HVAC, radio, and navigation will not work if the screen is off.   Progress!   A neighbor of mine has had three new screens installed in her Cadillac so far - the last time, it was in the shop for six weeks.  Fortunately they gave her a loaner car.  I am hearing similar things from other Cadillac owners - all this technology, well, if you don't have it in your car, don't feel left out.

Eventually, if self-driving cars are indeed a thing, we might not own cars, or as many.   But that might not be a bad thing.  If there is competition in the marketplace, people will compete on price.  We don't own an airliner, yet we get decent prices on airfares, right?

Of course, there are workarounds. I recounted before how I met a young man who has a Ford truck similar to ours. He added a new brake controller he had bought online for $30. It was an original Ford part but the dealer wants $70 to reprogram the computer to recognize it. He found a New Holland tractor dealer - who uses the same engine computer as Ford - to reprogram it for $30. But that's still $30 too much.

We did the same thing with the BMW's. They use a lot of proprietary parts and of course a proprietary computer system. But you can buy a simple code reader online and if you can figure out what the error code is and search online for solution, chances are you could repair the car inexpensively yourself. But this was not with the assistance of BMW but in spite of their lack of assistance.

I mention John Deere tractors, but that problem extends to far more than just oil cartridges in lawn tractors. The big tractors used by farmers, which cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, require John Deere parts which again require programming the tractor computer to recognize the new parts. It's similar to the printer cartridge deal, where you can make a cartridge that fits the printer but it won't work because it doesn't have the correct chip or something to make it work. And of course even if you had an OEM part, you have to go to a dealer to have their computer program your engine computer to recognize the new part.

Some manufacturers are arguing that their products are so complex now that only the dealerships should be allowed to repair them. Thus, they make the products difficult to repair so you are forced to take them back to an OEM dealer. Apple, of course is famous for this, bricking people's phones if they use a third-party battery.

These so-called "right to repair" laws perhaps are one answer. But another answer lies with the user. When you buy a product, you have a choice of whether to buy a product that's  in a proprietary ecosystem or in one with open architecture. Oddly enough, the loudest voices crying for this "right to repair" law are often the same people who own Apple products. But perhaps that's not as ironic as it may seem, as these are people who are forced to deal with closed architecture on a daily basis.

Others propose using older technology which is open-source architecture. The problem with this is, often  older technology will not fully function in the modern world. I noted before that older cars are not even compatible with today's gasoline which can wreak havoc with the fuel system and engine.

Not only that, but cars from just a few years ago were very primitive compared to the ones today.  I suppose I could have kept my old 1995 Ford F150 and put a rebuild engine and transmission in it, and we still be driving it today. But compared to today's trucks, it was very primitive and uncomfortable. After all, it came with a cassette deck, manual seats, and cloth upholstery. Yes, you can reprogram an older computer to run Linux, but it won't run any of today's high-tech computer games.

The other choice is to consume less or consumed cheaper products. You won't see me buying a $1,200 Apple Smartphone when I can buy $150 phone on eBay that works perfectly fine.  Maybe someday Samsung willbrick my phone or it will be so outdated as to not be usable. That, in fact is what happened to my older phone which I paid $99 for. It wouldn't run some of the newer apps. But since I only paid $99 for it and got several years of good use out of it, I didn't mind so much. Where people get upset is when they spend huge amounts of money, like my friend with his Cadillac, and the stuff doesn't work as advertised.

If people stopped buying into proprietary ecosystems, maybe they would go away. But so long as people place a premium on having a BMW roundel on their hood of their car, or an Apple logo on the back of their phone, proprietary hardware will continue to exist.

Once again, we're not entirely without choices.